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Sellwood Bridge, pivotal in 1925, pivots onto new piers in 2013



by: COURTESY OF SMILE HISTORY COMMITTEE - The Sellwood Ferry, the John F. Caples shown docked at the foot of Spokane Street. The ferry was in service for two decades before its final run. Poignantly, this might actually BE a photo of its final run, since it ended its service with the opening of the Sellwood Bridge  which seems to have been the vantage point from which this photo was taken.On the frosty Saturday morning of January 17th, 2013, members of the media, local citizens, and curiosity-seekers gathered on the east bank of the Willamette River to witness one of the most historic events ever, in Sellwood.

The complicated process of moving 1,100 feet of the Sellwood Bridge span 33 feet north on the east end, while turning it enough to move it 66 feet north at the west end, moved it in one day to its temporary home. Using hydraulic jacks, workers from the Omega Morgan Company began inching the 87-year-old onto the new piers constructed specifically for its arrival.

After over twenty years of engineering, political, and financial difficulties, and extensive planning between City of Portland, Multnomah County, Clackamas County, Metro, and input from local neighborhood associations, a new 397-million-dollar bridge is scheduled to open in the summer of 2016.

But even before the Sellwood Bridge was first built in 1925, transportation to and from the Sellwood community was playing an important role in the growth of Portland…

In the mid-1860’s, long before a bridge existed across the Willamette, travel to the settlement of Sellwood on the east bank of the river was by boat. Waterways were the major means of travel – and schooners, sternwheelers, and barges continuously traveled up and down the Willamette carrying freight and providing passenger service.

Sellwood’s commercial district was clustered around the Umatilla Street waterfront; and the bottom of Harney and Tacoma Streets offered a safe landing when watercraft were summoned for outgoing cargo. Farmers and manufacturers wishing to ship their products to market would signal passing ships by waving a poled flag that was hung near a suitable landing.

An alternative land route was available east of the commercial district. Produce and goods could be hauled by horse and wagon along a rutted and steep country road that connected the city of Milwaukie to East Portland via Division Street. This primitive roadway was later named Milwaukie Road, and construction on it was begun by Ben Stark and William Pettygrove in the 1840’s.

This road provided the easiest route for travelers to the Stark Street Ferry (owned by Ben Stark) – a profitable enterprise for Stark, who charged farmers riders five cents to cross the river.

Team drivers steering wagonloads of goods had the difficult task of maneuvering around huge trees, dips on the trail, and navigating down steep hills along the ungraded sections of this roadway. In the winter, rain rutted the road, turning the dirt path to thick mud, which often made the roadway nearly impossible to navigate for team and rider.

It wasn’t until the 1890’s, when the Morrison and the Steel Bridges were completed across the Willamette River, that an alternative was offered for growers and merchants to deliver their goods more efficiently and cheaply.

The arrival of the new electric streetcar in 1892 offered another form of transportation. Riders could climb aboard along Milwaukie Boulevard, and ride as far south to ByBee Street, where the trolley turned west to 13th Street, running south to the end of Ochoco Street.

Passengers could spend the weekend betting on horse races or enjoy the popular game of baseball offered at the City View Race Track, or a day of golf at the Waverley Golf Course. The racetrack ran length wise east to west along 7th and Miller to about 11th street covering many acres that include today’s Sellwood Pool and Sellwood Park.

Sellwood’s waterfront commercial district was beginning to evolve away from the river, with the appearance of new shops along 13th Avenue, as the residential area began to spread. The community was becoming a haven for Portland’s upper class, looking for a vacation home or cute dainty bungalow that could be used as a summer home.

Lots could be bought for between $200 and $500. The Sellwood Real Estate Company whisked prospective buyers away from the bustle, pollution, and noise of the “big city of Portland” on its own private ferry. By 1904 the City of Portland had taken over the ferry operation, and the “John F. Caples” ferryboat would provide transport for residents who lived south of the city, traveling between the east and west banks of the Willamette River.

In 1905 the “National Good Roads Association” met in northwest Portland for the opening of the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Visitors were able to witness a multitude of gasoline-powered vehicles called “automobiles” – still a novelty at the time.

The winners of the first transcontinental auto race arrived in the Rose City from New York, spurring an overwhelming interest in the purchase of cars. The ownership and operation of an auto was no longer simply for the elite, and by the 1920s over 2,000 cars were registered in Portland and its outlying areas.

Residents who lived on the east side of the Willamette were now demanding easier access to downtown venues where the major department stores, movie theaters, and baseball games at Vaughn fairgrounds were located. City and county leaders began to think of building more bridges across the river.

At the time, Portland had only five pedestrian and vehicle bridges to connect downtown Portland to its east side. The Morrison (1887), Steel (1888), Madison (1891), original Burnside (1894), and Broadway (1913) Bridges were all constructed between 1887 and 1913 respectively. (The Madison Bridge was rebuilt in 1900, and then replaced by the Hawthorne Bridge ten years later; and the Morrison Bridge was rebuilt in 1905 and refurbished in 1958).

The “Sellwood Board of Trade” was already making plans to propose a river crossing in Sellwood as early as 1910. A “push committee” was established to lobby local officials to raise funds and support the cause. However, it would be a ten long years before Sellwood residents would see the first fruits of this labor, and it would be part of a three-bridge project: Burnside, then Ross Island, then Sellwood.

The firm of Hedrick and Kremers was originally assigned the task of designing and completing the three bridges, but a political scandal involving the recall of three Portland City Commissioners over an alleged unfair bidding process resulted in Gustav Lindenthal being chosen instead to lead the three huge bridge projects.

On December 15th, 1925, the Sellwood Bridge was officially opened, as hundreds of spectators showed up to celebrate. Chet Keller, then just eight years old, joined with his Sellwood classmates to marched to the middle of the bridge and sing “America the Beautiful” for everyone present.

As the new bridge opened, the “John F. Caples” ferryboat that had carried passengers and freight for 21 years across the Willamette River at Spokane Street made its final run.

Like that ferryboat which serviced the south-Portland community admirably for many years, the now-moved span of the original Sellwood Bridge will continue to support river-crossing traffic until 2016 – when a new ceremony will celebrate the christening of a better and stronger Sellwood Bridge, and the historic original bridge span will be closed and torn apart for scrap.